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Hospitals Adopt Drug Industry Sales Strategy

Dec 13, 2011

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In northwest Indiana, Carrie Sota visits five or six doctors' offices every work day as part of her new sales job.

Carrie Sota, of the University of Chicago Medical Center, pays a "sales call" to Dr. Amit Joshi, a family doctor in Orland Park, Ill. (Photo by John Zich/USA Today)

But Sota isn't selling the physicians on a prescription drug or a medical device. She's promoting her hospital — the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Sota is one of four employees the academic medical center has hired in recent months to make "sales calls" on physicians in the hope that they will refer more patients to the hospital.  "We are trying to build meaningful relationships," said Sota, who was previously a saleswoman for a small medical device company.

The University of Chicago Medical Center is one of a growing number of hospitals nationwide hiring former drug and device sales representatives to visit doctors' offices to persuade them to use their services over competing facilities.

Rather than handing out samples of prescription drugs, the sales reps call on doctors armed with the latest information about their hospitals such as how they are reducing hospital-acquired infections and improving patient satisfaction scores.

In visits that can last five to 20 minutes, the reps may try to win doctors' loyalty by helping them get better times on operating room schedules or easier patient referrals to hospital-based specialists. The sales reps can also carry messages back to the hospital, like a doctor’s request for a new medical device to be available in surgery.

While hospitals have always tried to woo doctors to refer patients to them, the institutions are growing more direct in their efforts. The hospitals mine data to see which doctors have the most profitable, well-insured patients, and then they assign those doctors to a sales rep.

Convinced the sales-call strategy is fueling higher admissions, Tenet Healthcare Corp., the nation's third largest for-profit hospital chain, has doubled its sales force in the past two years. The company now has 152 "physician liaisons" at its 49 hospitals, most of which are in California, Texas and Florida.

About two-thirds of Tenet's liaisons are former drug and device sales reps, and they can make tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses if doctors increase their referrals to the hospitals. "These people are really good and really assertive and very sophisticated," said Stephen Newman, Tenet's chief operating officer.

But they do have critics.

Paul Ginsburg, president of the nonpartisan Center for Studying Health System Change, said, "When you look at the health system, this is a waste of resources. It's a zero sum game."  

He added: "The net results of changing physician referral patterns is that one hospital gains at a cost of others, and all the hospitals burn resources to pay [sales] people who take up the doctor's time."

While federal law prohibits hospitals from paying doctors to admit patients, hospitals paying sales people to influence doctors can get the same results, he said.

Newman said Tenet's liaisons have strict guidelines so they can't "game the system" to reach financial bonuses. For example, their bonuses can't be tied to just one doctor's referrals.

As a result of major cutbacks by pharmaceutical and medical device companies in the past decade, hospitals have thousands of former medical salespeople to draw from. Tenet's roster of sales associates includes alumni of pharmaceutical and device giants Sanofi-Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Novartis.

Newman said the company is focused on increasing referrals from doctors who split their patient referrals among multiple hospitals, as well as from physicians who don't yet refer to Tenet facilities. Since 2007, the company credits its physician liaisons with helping to boost the numbers of doctors who actively refer patients to its hospital by 39 percent, or more than 4,500 doctors.

Hospitals say their new sales approach is part of a broader strategy to develop closer ties to physicians, who largely determine where patients go for care. Hospitals also are buying doctors' practices or forming closer partnerships with physicians to improve care and drive admissions.

"I think everyone wants to grow their market and lots of hospitals see that the No. 1 way to get referrals is physician-to-physician interaction, and the second best way is physician-to-physician-liaison interaction," said Christine Perry, who manages the physician liaison program at Duke University Health System. Unlike most hospitals that have hired marketing people for the positions, Duke hires nurses as its liaisons. 

Many of the physician liaisons focus on specialists, who bring in patients for services with the highest profit margins, including orthopedics, cardiac care and cancer care, Perry said. But the sales calls also extend to internists and family doctors.

In fact, she said, a big factor behind the trend is that many primary care physicians no longer visit their patients in the hospital, because most hospitals have full-time physicians called hospitalists who care for patients in the facility. As a result, hospitals have fewer opportunities to interact with doctors in the community to tell them about the new CT scanner or new specialist.

Dr. Kaveh Safavi, the lead health industry consultant for Accenture, said hospitals are seeking ways to keep beds filled in the face of efforts by government and private insurers to reduce hospitalizations by eliminating pay for unnecessary admissions. "Hospitals know they have to create a larger funnel for a bigger population of patients to make their way to them," he said.

Kathy DeVries, vice president of marketing at University of Chicago Medical Center, said the former drug sales reps understand how to work with doctors. "They speak their language," she said. The hospital is now trying to hire a sales rep focused solely on pediatricians. In its help wanted ad, the hospital said the liaison will have a goal of making 160 contacts a month with physician offices, including "25 meaningful face-to-face contacts with physicians."

One downside to hiring former drug and device sales reps is that their medical knowledge usually focuses on a single specialty, such as diabetes treatment or orthopedics. In pitching their hospital to a doctor, the sales reps have to be familiar with a wider range of hospital services, Perry said.

HCA Inc., the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, has at least 150 employees who make physician visits—or about one per hospital, said spokesman Ed Fishbough. He said about 90 percent of them visit doctors who already send some of their patients to HCA hospitals. "It's to give our physicians and their patients a voice and to listen to any concerns the doctors may have and to address those," he said.

Michelle Osipowicz, spent five years as a sales representative for at Takeda Pharmaceuticals, is enjoying that aspect of her new role as a liaison for The Hospital of Central Connecticut.

"I act as a conduit between the hospital and the doctors in the community," said Osipowicz, who visits up to eight offices a day, sometimes dropping in unannounced to chat with office staff about the hospital's services or its latest medical specialists. "I bring more value to the physician office. I feel more respected in this role," she said.

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